For the Habs to have a shot at beating Pittsburgh, their top guys need to be at their best. That much is obvious. But who or what are some of the X-Factors for Montreal in their play-in series? Our writers offer up their insights.
Terry Costaris: Anything can happen in a 5-game series so I’ll give Montreal a 45% chance of beating Pittsburgh.
The Habs are freshly rested, injury-free, have a great goalie and possess 4 decent lines. Aside from Carey Price, there are several X-Factor players on the Habs’ roster who will likely make a difference.
At the top of my list is Jonathan Drouin. He has a chip on his shoulder and will be champing at the bit to continue what he was doing prior to his frustrating injury. In the one season that he experienced playoff hockey, Drouin was a game-breaker along the lines of Alexander Radulov.
Max Domi is another player that the Pens need to pay a lot of attention towards. If Domi plays (being a diabetic puts him at higher risk if he contracts COVID), he too has a lot to prove – both contractually and psychologically.
The Habs’ defence is suspect but Noah Juulsen may have a coming out party. He too is champing at the bit to prove that his serious freak injuries are now behind him.
And then there is Alexander Romanov. If he is allowed to play, he may pull off some rookie magic like Chris Chelios or Eric Desjardins did in the past for the Habs.
Sometimes, rookies come out of nowhere and catch opposing teams off guard. In a 5-game series, the Penguins might not have enough time to properly adjust to this highly touted Russian.
These are my key X-Factors but will they offset a well-rested, super motivated one-two punch of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin?
Allan Katz: The concept of an X-Factor being involved in a playoff is invariably exciting; some hard-working modestly talented player plays above himself and contributes to either a victory or a moral victory for their team. It’s a great story of human perseverance and a ray of hope for all the rest of us that anything is possible. Celebrating these moments is easy but prognosticating about these moments is not. Weber, Price and a few forwards have to be factors for this play-in to even be competitive and everyone else is a potential surprise. With that in mind I’ve decided to first look at Z-Factors, then Y-Factors and finally select the X-Factor for the Habs against the Penguins.
First, my Zzzzz-Factor players. These are hockey players that I would love, in my dreams, to turn out to be X-Factors in this play-in round. Dale Weise is listed as the teams’ 12th forward. Since Montreal traded most of their depth, the ‘Dutch Gretzky’ will get ice time. But I would like to see Jordan Weal on the fourth line and Charles Hudon (the team’s 13th forward) step in on the third line and possibly form a buzz saw line with Domi and Paul Byron (or more realistically, Artturi Lehkonen). The problem is that he has never had a scoring tear in the NHL… but it would be nice … in my dreams. On defence, Montreal needs a few left defencemen to play insane and in my dreams, I select Victor Mete. Fast as the wind, just as unpredictable as the wind, and as strong as a light summer breeze, Mete could surprise us all or put us all back to sleep.
Now, for my Y-Factor. This is my WHY category and covers scenarios that are not as player specific. My first one is Claude Julien and his staff. Personally, I would beat the Penguins by continually tying the skate laces of their superstars. Some Quantum Physics will need to be applied and I’m still working on the details, but Julien and his Amigos have to figure out how to beat the Pens with a slightly more realistic plan than mine. Good luck guys. My second Y-Factor is COVID-19. If you don’t know why that is a concern, bless your heart and let me teach you how to tie laces… I have a fun idea for you.
Now, my X-Factor. Almost everyone including God is a candidate. I should go with God because He/She could really bring a victory or even a five-game series. My goal is to pick a Hab no one else put forward. Sure Joel Armia, Nick Suzuki, and Lehkonen are obvious candidates, but I want to go deeper. Who is the individual that can make the league stand-up and go, “Wow!” I have the man and the reason. The anchor of the defence is Weber. He will play 28 minutes a game, hopefully be a plus player, and provide his partner with maximum possibilities. The Achilles’ heel of the team is the team, oh sorry, is the sixth defenceman; either Christian Folin or Cale Fleury; either might be an F-Factor. But if JEFF PETRY gives us 27 minutes a game and plays above himself and pots a few goals and a few assists combined with dominant defence, the Habs could win a few games and make it an exciting series. I know he’s good, I know he’s decently paid, but if Jeff Petry delivers the heaven and earth anything is possible (or not). My X-Factor: Jeff Petry.
Brian La Rose: When Byron is at his best, he can be someone that can really make a difference. For that to happen, he has to be healthy and he has to be on the right role (in other words, nowhere near the top six). Those two elements weren’t in place for most of the regular season and predictably, he struggled.
But now? The Habs are seemingly fully healthy (Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s spleen injury could change that) which means that Byron should be at full speed and in his proper exploitative role in the lineup.
Pittsburgh’s group of depth forwards isn’t the strongest which is the natural by-product of having a top-heavy roster. That’s good news for Byron. They struggle against quicker teams. That’s really good news for Byron.
I don’t see him being a big point producer by any rate. He hasn’t been one before and there’s no reason to think he’ll be one now. But if he can help keep the puck in the attacking end during his shifts, wreak a bit of havoc in transition, and play well on the penalty kill, he’ll be a real difference-maker. In the postseason, those players tend to score a timely goal here and there too. When Byron’s at his best, he can do exactly that and Montreal will certainly benefit if he does it.
Paul MacLeod: It is an intriguing question, what are Montreal’s X-Factors aside from a rested Carey Price, the Man Mountain imposing himself and intimidating opposing players and the Tatar-Danault-Gallagher line dominating 5-on-5 possession?
For the Habs to have any chance of winning the series they will also need two X-Factors, not one. Given that both their forward and defensive depth were depleted at the trade deadline in anticipation of no playoffs, they need players to step up at forward and on defence.
The forward X-Factor is Drouin. If the Drouin of the early season shows up and plays to his potential, the Canadiens have a chance to beat Pittsburgh. If the post-injury, ineffective Drouin takes the ice for them, then any hope of them winning the play-in are dead. They simply do not have the depth to carry any passengers or replace them.
For the defence, the team’s chances of victory will be dramatically improved if Juulsen is able to continue his renaissance and step in and play well on the 3rd pair. If he cannot, I can’t see the defence having the depth to defeat the Penguins.
In any case, regardless of the effect on draft position and the potential for this play-in to have a significant negative effect on the team’s future, I will be rooting hard for the Habs to win. For me, the team winning is what puts the Fan in fanatic. If I get to the point where I am rooting against my team gaining a playoff spot for the hope of some better future in the form of a higher draft pick, that is the point where I will have to consider not following the team anymore.
Dave Woodward: The most obvious variable or X-Factor in the entire NHL playoffs is the pandemic itself. There is a very real possibility that the play-ins/playoffs will not occur. Already, players have tested positive for COVID-19 while restrictions are in place. Training camps do not even open for a few weeks and outbreaks are occurring. We all know how the seasonal flu can wreak havoc and go through a team. What are the chances of avoiding a material outbreak during training camps or, even worse, in the hub cities? It does not take an epidemiologist to answer that question.
Assuming the play-in round occurs, it goes without saying that Price, Weber, and Petry will have to perform at a high level for the series to be competitive. However, that alone will not be enough to beat Pittsburgh. To have any chance of winning, an outmanned Habs team will have to shut down Crosby and Malkin. That will require an incredible effort from Philip Danault and, to a lesser extent, his linemates, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher.
This line, and Danault in particular, are capable of competing with the best players in the league. But the Penguins’ lineup presents special challenges for a Canadiens team that is inexperienced down the middle and whose left side defenders are, with the exception of Ben Chiarot, marginal NHL defencemen. These weaknesses will be exploited by a battle-hardened team like Pittsburgh. A player like Danault, as well as Gallagher and Tatar, must outperform and shut down the Penguins’ superstars for the Canadiens to have any hope.